Papers prepared by Dr. (later Prof.) Aubrey Newman
for a conference at University College, London,
convened on 6 July 1975 by the
Jewish Historical Society of England
Page created: 6 March 2017
THE BOARD OF DEPUTIES
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The London Committee of Deputies of British Jews, generally known as The Board of Deputies of British Jews, takes its origins from the 'Committee of Diligence' set up by the Spanish and Portuguese Jews of Bevis Marks in 1746, and from the committee of representatives of the Portuguese and Ashkenazi congregations established in 1760 at the time of the accession of George III. The London Committee did not meet very often, and it was not really until 1835 that a decision was made to remodel the institution and to put its activities onto a wider and more secure foundation. It was at this time, 1836, that the title 'Committee of Deputies of British Jews' was adopted, and provision was made for the admission of other congregations, either in London or the provinces. The initial invitation to various provincial congregations did not meet with an encouraging response. Edinburgh declined, Birmingham took no decision, Liverpool wanted time to consider it, Gloucester acknowledged the suggestion, Yarmouth felt that it was in no position to agree, Chatham refused, and Sunderland agreed to make a nomination. Even this latter nomination was soon allowed to lapse on the grounds of poverty, so that the first attempt to extend the Board's membership was not exactly successful. Nonetheless, the number of congregations represented at the Board did grow steadily, and by 1901 there were represented at the Board thirty-three provincial congregations with at least three more that had only temporarily allowed their membership to lapse.1. Admittedly some of these were 'rotten boroughs', in the sense that they gave an opportunity for Londoners to find seats for themselves as representatives for congregations that otherwise would never have considered sending delegates, but even so it is clear that the Board had grounds by the end of the century in claiming to be truly representative of British Jewry. From the beginning, however, the Board had always claimed this status, and at times indeed there were strong disagreements between it and various prominent individual Jews on this issue; the Board on occasion claimed that it alone had the right to make representations to members of the government on particular issues while these individuals claimed that they too, if they wished it, could go direct.
Much of the work of the Board was directed at first to the questions of Jewish Emancipation, the full removal of all legal disabilities. But there wore also a range of other activities with which the Board was increasingly concerned, and many of these specifically related to the activities of the provincial congregations. The marriage acts of the eighteenth century had specifically preserved the right of Jews to be married without the control of the Church of England, and this right was continued by the Marriage and Registration Acts of the reign of William IV. Under these acts Jewish congregations were allowed to register marriages, provided that there was a properly recognised marriage secretary appointed and the responsibility for making that appintment was delegated to the Board of Deputies; in consequence the Board was able to exercise some measure of contact with - and control over - the various congregations in the country. Not all provincial congregations were able to accept this measure of supervision, the more so since many of the more recent immigrants brought with then feelings of resentment against the intervention of the authority the state in affairs that were strictly matters for religious jurisdiction. The result was a continuous series of letters between the Board and the Registrar-General over irregular marriages, over the apparent registration of marriages between uncle and niece (legal according to religious law but not according to the law of the land), and even the desire by some provincial religious authorities to issue decrees of divorce that could not be recognised by the ordinary law courts. There were perpetual difficulties in making provincial congregations appreciate that no 'marriage secretary' could embark on his duties until he had been officially certified by the President of the Board of Deputies to the Registrar-General, and the secretary to the Board had also problems in ensuring the safety of those marriage registers that were no longer in use.
In 1849 the Board took on further collective responsibilities. It was decided that the Board should collect from each congregation - whether it was represented on the Board or not - statistics of births, marriages, deaths, and numbers of seat-holders, and these figures, printed annually as an appendix to its Reports, presented an interesting picture of the rise and decline of various provincial communities. Almost as an extension of that, in 1891, with a realisation of the large numbers of foreigners involved, the authorities for the taking of that year's census asked the Board to prepare posters and pamphlets explaining how the census forms should be completed and to assist in the general task of making the returns as complete as possible. Broadly speaking, however, the work of the Board could be divided into two main aspects, especially after the completion of the task to remove Jewish disabilities. Abroad, the Board tried to intervene itself or persuade the Government to intervene in cases of persecution or of blatant failure of justice so far as Jews were concerned. The revival of various 'blood-libel accusations' or forcible conversions invariably stirred up feeling, while the growth of anti-semitism in Eastern Europe culminated in 1881 in the setting up cf the Russo-Jewish Committee. At home the Law and Parliamentary Committee kept a watchful eye on any legislation which seemed to affect adversely the position of Jews, and the various Sunday Trading measures were matters of outstanding concern to many private individuals in all parts of the country. Year after year the Reports of the Board showed the degree of concern with which these measures were treated, and the care taken to make representations to the appropriate department of the administration. In this context the Board represented an important 'pressure group' linking the 'Grand Dukes' of Anglo-Jewry with the rank and file of the community.
Two further points of activity by the Board need to be mentioned. When, between 1850 and 1872, there was a stream of agitation over the use of State grants for education, it was the Board which did its best to secure for the various Jewish schools a share of these grants; the Protestant non-conformists and the Roman Catholics could receive grants, and the Board claimed that Jewish schools too ought to be able to receive them. The case was fought over the Manchester Jewish Free School, but the victory applied to others as well. The Board was also involved in attempts to ensure that various bodies would not discriminate against observant Jews in matters of examinations being held on Sabbaths or Festivals.
By 1901 it was clear that the Board of Deputies had become something much more than merely a convenient platform for a few privileged congregations. It had become one of the few organisations in the country where the various provincial congregations could make a common cause with each other and with the London congregations as well. Originally one of the institutions of the old Anglo-Jewish community, it had managed to adapt itself remarkably well to the changing circumstances of the newer one of the more recent immigrations and had helped to create a unity which otherwise could never have been brought into existence.
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